According to Rutger Bregman, in his illuminating and upbeat book Utopia For Realists, any number of large-scale experiments in which the poor and homeless were simply handed money, no strings attached, produced positive results.
These trials – which even excited that old right-wing grouch President Richard Nixon – showed the poor were only poor because they had no money.
Trials in North America, Manchester, Africa and elsewhere, provided evidence that the recipients spent their money on their education, on self-improvement, on tentative money-making ventures.
Contrary to the assumption that easy money would inspire only indolence in the feckless, recipients became productive members of society.
The assumption was lazy, not the people.
In the most extreme cases of hardship – the rough-sleeping homeless with self-destructive addictions – it was cheaper than funding the institutional merry-go-round of social work and healthcare – while also offering the priceless promise of tomorrow.
Money was allowed to circulate in communities where once nothing prospered and the tax take increased. Time after time, the biggest beneficiaries were children who were allowed to imagine a bright future so invested in their education, studying without the distraction of hunger.
All this makes sense. If there is the guarantee of a meal this evening, you’re less likely to seek immediate oblivion through alcohol, drugs or gambling. If there is guarantee of a meal for your family for the next month, or year, then you can stop thinking about the ceaseless, tedious pre-occupations of poverty and start anticipating betterment.
The charity GiveDirectly does the same thing in Africa – providing money to the extreme poor without the distractions of providing Jeeps for NGO bigwigs on poverty porn junkets. The charity promises experimentation and analytical rigour “to understand the most impactful ways to achieve positive outcomes”.
Money is a human right
The case against comes in the form of the politics of retribution. The debate would return to the old tropes of the deserving and undeserving poor. Of complex solutions and deferred outcomes versus bus slogans and instant populist gratification.
Nixon’s Basic Income Plan failed because the right-wing thought he was giving away too much, the liberals, too little. Politics is the clutter, not the poor.
Domestically, the cost of these schemes is comparable with the sclerotic, debasing instruments of state aimed at achieving the same end and, even where the minimum guaranteed incomes exceed that figure, the price of ending poverty is still a moral cause worth pursuing.
It’s right there in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”